Sunday, March 30, 2008

Christian meditation: Practicing contemplative prayer

The Christian equivalent of meditation, known as contemplative prayer, dates back to Jesus himself, who fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days and nights. In contemplation, says Father Thomas Keating, whose “centering prayer” has helped revitalize interest in Christian meditation, you open your awareness and your heart to God, the ultimate mystery, who dwells in the depths of your being, beyond the reach of the mind. (See the “Centering prayer” sidebar for more about the practice taught by Father Keating.) After the time of Jesus, the first great Christian meditators were the desert fathers of Egypt and Palestine in the third and fourth centuries, who lived largely in solitude and cultivated awareness of the Divine presence through constant repetition of a sacred phrase. Their direct descendants, the monks, nuns, and mystics of medieval Europe, developed the contemplative practice of repeating and ruminating over a scriptural passage (not to be confused with thinking about or analyzing it!) until its deeper significance revealed itself to the mind. Both of these practices, explains Father Keating, hark back to Jesus’s admonition, “When you pray, go into your closet, your innermost being, and bolt the door.”
In the Eastern Orthodox Church of Greece and Eastern Europe, monks have long engaged in a similar practice combining prostrations (full-body bows) with the repetition of the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner”) until all practices drop away to reveal a deep interior silence filled with love and bliss.
In recent years, many Christian ministers and monastics have been influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist teachers who have appeared in the West in increasing numbers. In response, some have adapted Eastern practices to the needs of Christian audiences. Others, like Father Keating, have delved into their own contemplative roots and resuscitated practices that had become dusty with disuse.

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